On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers. At the time, Buchanan South was meant to be converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose and allow power to resume flowing.
When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly, resulting in a loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines. Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.
At that point, the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. I just had returned from my time in Liberia, and was visiting friends before heading to California. We’d finished dinner and were enjoying the twin pleasures of good conversation and the view from their Morningside Gardens apartment, when all of New York simply disappeared.
It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and not unknown for power to go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode, winds bring down power lines, squirrels play tag, and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can once again make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.
But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Scanning the horizon, we found there was no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss.
The night seemed never to end. The vibrato of the sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of merchandise looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene might have been mistaken for an etching by Albrecht Dürer.
Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds seemed to be losing their enthusiasm for mayhem, we rested, three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what might be next.
As the first tendrils of light began to wrap themselves around buildings and climb down into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable. Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night, not only because of the arson and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive only the rising of the sun could bring release.
In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, wash basins and razors, prepared to become human again.
Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wished nothing more than to go back to Liberia. Today, I might not be so eager. But at the time, looking down into those chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to “civilization” in any number of ways, not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.
My first experience of darkness as blessing came during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my dad, and off we’d go. Traveling country roads, we’d roam as far from the lights of our little town as we could. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazing ourselves with the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap blankets around ourselves for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate and admire Orion, my favorite winter constellation.
I learned the constellations first — Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio. Later, I began to learn the stars — Antares, Aldebaran, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius — and little verses that helped searchers find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite mnemonic, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into mysteries that seemed close enough to touch.
Eventually, I began to grow up. Trips to country darkness became less frequent and adventures were measured in lumens. Oblivious to light pollution, my friends and I were seekers of light. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, even Paris, the City of Light, drew us out of our darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.
If we were forced on occasion to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah or Evansville, no matter. Our lives were arcing in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.
Forgotten that, is until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into darkness, teaching me anew that star light can be enough.
With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted, distant stars. Ribbons of spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.
When darkness falls as it did that night in New York City, it can be unnerving and awkward, occasionally frightening, and entirely capable of releasing a flood of darkness within the human soul.
But there is another darkness, a more comfortable darkness, a darkness capable of enfolding the world like a velvet night. Sprinkled with bits of light and time, that darkness testifies to a reality far more expansive than human life itself.
Wrapped in that velvet night, secure as beloved children, our souls are free to rise up, arcing to Arcturus and beyond, toward galaxies beyond our sight and a universe beyond our understanding.
Arcturus already is there, waiting at our vision’s edge. We need only lift our eyes.
Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water,
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (More than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be –
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.
~ Eavan Boland